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Lamentations Rabbah: demanding God's mercy

In my last midrash class at the Conservative Yeshiva, in preparation for Tisha b'Av, we studied a midrash from Eicha Rabbah which blew me away. Here's a very simplistic retelling, which I offer in the spirit of Tisha b'Av, the day when we remember the Temple's fall and mourn the brokenness of the world.

It's a gorgeous midrash, featuring quite a cast of characters who argue with God about the injustice of God's actions at this point in time. Most of the arguments try to prevail on God's sense of justice, but the one that finally sways God is an argument arising out of compassion. It's the female voice in the story that ultimately calls God to righteousness. May we walk in her footsteps, that the world may be healed in our day.

Find previous years' 9 Av posts here.

When the Temple was destroyed, Abraham came to God, weeping and wailing and rending his clothes. Even the ministering angels joined him in mourning. How, Abraham asked God, could You allow this to happen to my people?

Israel has transgressed my laws, God replied.

Says who? Abraham asked.

The Torah will testify against them, God said, and the Torah came forth. But Abraham convinced her not to testify, reminding her that when God brought her into the world, only the Israelites accepted her. [That's a reference to another midrash, in which God offers the Torah to every nation in the world but only the Israelites say "yes."]

Then God called the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet -- considered the building-blocks not only of Torah but of creation itself -- to testify. And Abraham convinced them too not to testify, reminding each of its place in the Torah and in our hearts. To the aleph he said: you're the first letter of the first commandment God spoke to us! To the bet he said: you're the first letter of the Torah! To the gimel he said: you're the first letter of the commandment to wear tzitzit, which only we uphold! And each letter was reminded, and chose not to testify against the house of Israel.

Abraham argued further with God: I was willing to sacrifice my beloved son for You. Won't You remember that, and have mercy?

Isaac added: I was willing to be sacrificed. Won't You remember that, and have mercy?

Jacob added, I spent my life tending to my children, the house of Israel, in service of Your plan. Won't You remember that, and have mercy?

Moses added, I was a faithful shepherd to the house of Israel for forty years. In the desert I ran before them like a horse, and You didn't even let me enter the land with them, and now You're allowing them to be exiled and killed? Won't You remember, and have mercy?

Moses and the prophet Jeremiah [author of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha b'Av] went to see the destruction with their own eyes. It was hard for them to walk because the roads were so filled with the bodies of the dead. And they saw people being killed left and right, death and suffering everywhere, fathers forced to kill sons in the presence of their mothers, and they returned weeping.

Moses cursed the sun, saying: Sun, why didn't you go dark when this happened? But the sun said, I tried, but I couldn't. Moses bemoaned the Temple's fall. He told the Chaldeans not to be cruel, and yet they were cruel.

And then Rachel spoke.

God, she said: You remember that Jacob loved me exceedingly, but my father chose to give him Leah in my place. Jacob and I had worked out a system of signals, so he would know whether or not it was really me in his bed. But then I had pity on my sister and I taught her the signals so he wouldn't realize it was her. I even lay beneath their bed, and when he spoke to her, she was silent and I responded in her stead.

If I -- a creature of flesh and blood, made of dust and ashes -- could overcome my jealousy in order to be kind to my sister...why are You, the sovereign of all existence, jealous of the false gods with whom the Israelites dally, false gods who aren't even real?! How can You let Your jealousy cause your children to be slain and exiled?

And the mercy of God was stirred by Rachel's argument. And God said: for your sake, Rachel, I will restore the house of Israel to their place. Have hope for the future. The exile -- not just physical, but existential and spiritual -- will come to an end.

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